Land Court upholds Sheriff’s Meadow title to Chilmark land

In August 2011, Benjamin Ramsey and Nisa Counter received a tent permit from the Chilmark board of health and began work on a shed. The building inspector ordered the couple to stop. — File photo by Nelson Sigelman

In a decision issued April 1 in favor of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, Massachusetts Land Court Justice Alexander H. Sands 3rd ruled that husband and wife, Ben Ramsey and Nisa Counter, did not own a parcel of land off Blue Barque Road  in Chilmark, land on which they planned to build and the conservation organization said it owned.

In a detailed 26 page decision, Justice Sands said no deed prior to 2010 — when Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter purchased the land — and no plans and no records existed to support the couple’s claim of ownership.

The acrimonious dispute began with a deed lawyer Eric Peters recorded on August 5, 2010. The deed represented that Ben Ramsey and Nisa Counter had bought a parcel of land for $9,000 from Wilma “Billie” Hancock, the widow of former Chilmark selectman Herbert Hancock, Mr. Ramsey’s uncle, who died on April 26, 2001.

The Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF) argued that the land in question is part of the 10.5-acre Freeman Hancock woodlot off Blue Barque Road in Chilmark, and that it is property given by C. Russell Walton to SMF in 1973.

Mr. Ramsey said the land, a little more than one acre, was part of a separate tract and abutted the conservation property and was part of his uncle’s estate. When Sheriff’s Meadow rebuffed the couple’s claim, Mr. Ramsey, a contractor, and Ms. Counter, a physical trainer, moved the title dispute to social media, where, in posts on Facebook and on blogs, they were highly critical of Sheriff’s Meadow and property abutters, in an effort to rally Island public support.

The couple likened Sheriff’s Meadow to a corporation using unseemly tactics to acquire and protect land. In their Facebook arguments in support of their ownership of the land and in sharp criticism of the position taken by SMF, the couple characterized the issue as “youth lots versus tax breaks.”

At one point, Judge Sands ordered all parties not to speak publicly about a case that generated sharp online attacks against the Island’s largest conservation organization, its officers, and lawyer Ron Rappaport of Edgartown, who represented SMF in the early stages of the case.

The creation of a road and the construction of a building described as a tent by Mr. Ramsey precipitated a request by SMF for an injunction. Although Judge Sands allowed the use of the “tent,” he ordered the couple to refrain from any further cutting or construction activity. Chilmark building inspector and zoning officer Lenny Jason ordered Mr. Ramsey to remove the tent, which more closely resembled an unfinished shed.

An effort at mediation failed when Diane Tillotson of the Boston law firm of Hemenway and Barnes, representing Sheriff’s Meadow, withdrew an offer to pay the couple $10,000.

The settlement would have allowed the couple to walk away without a loss on the purchase price and spare Sheriff’s Meadow significant legal fees. SMF yanked the offer after details of private discussions appeared on a website highly critical of the nonprofit, according to court documents filed in the case.

In a two day trial held April 25, 26, 2013 in Edgartown, Mr. Ramsey represented himself, and Ms. Tillotson represented Sheriff’s Meadow.

In his decision, Judge Sands traced the chain of ownership of the parcel at the heart of the legal battle, a 12-acre parcel in the Quenames section of Chilmark, beginning with the conveyance of a large tract of land from Zacchariah Mayhew to Jonathan Mayhew dated November 23, 1805, through generations of the Hancock family, and ending with C. Russell Walton, who transferred the property to Sheriff’s Meadow.

Judge Sands said that a parcel comprising the western three acres of the disputed property was included in Mr. Hancock’s probate inventory dated January 9, 2004. “The value as of death is listed at $0,” Judge Sands said. “No further description of this property was provided.”

Judge Sands said, “There is no evidence as to how Herbert [Hancock] obtained title to the three acres and no deed existed prior to the 2010 deed “describing or separating the three acres from the disputed parcel.”

Mr. Ramsey attempted to bolster his claim of ownership with evidence that over a period of years, from 1982, Mr. Hancock paid taxes on one acre of the property and used it as a wood lot and dump for more than 20 years. Judge Sands said, “Where a person is not in actual occupation or possession, payment of taxes is not, in and of itself, evidence of adverse possession.”

No choice but to fight

Throughout the legal battle, supporters of Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter portrayed Sheriff’s Meadow as an organization with more than enough acreage to spare, but nevertheless intent on preventing a young couple from making a home on family land. This week, Sheriff’s Meadow officials said that the organization could not succumb to public intimidation to shed land and still retain the confidence of land donors.

Sheriff’s Meadow executive director Adam Moore said the nonprofit conservation organization owns about 2,000 acres and holds conservation restrictions over approximately 850 acres. Mr. Moore said the issue was always about ownership of the land.

“The judge addressed all of the points that we made and his ruling clearly confirms Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation’s complete ownership of all of this property,” Mr. Moore said Friday.

Mr. Moore said there was never any question that Sheriff’s Meadow needed to defend its title no matter how many acres it owns. “All of the acres are important,” Mr. Moore said. “The land was given to us for conservation purposes and we have an obligation to be stewards of the land and to care for all these properties and defend them if we need to.”

Mr. Moore said prior to trial SMF spent a considerable amount of time and expense to demonstrate to Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter it owned the land. Ultimately, he said, SMF could not set a precedent by alienating the property and was forced to defend its ownership, even in the face of a public campaign by the couple’s supporters.

SMF president John Schaefer of Edgartown and New York City said SMF does not have the flexibility to override donor intent. “And the donor’s intent in giving us this property was that it be conserved and not be used for building,” he said.

Mr. Schaefer said not honoring a donor intent would pose risks that could threaten the organization. “And as a conservation organization, we honor the intent of our donors,” he said. “We really had no choice but to defend our property.”

Efforts by The Times to contact Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Counter, who spend winters in Panama, for comment were unsuccessful. The couple did not respond to an email from The Times.